An Agentive Non-intentionalist Theory of Self-deception



许斗斗 毕业于中山大学哲学系和复旦大学哲学系,2000年获复旦大学哲学博士学位。现任华侨大学哲学与社会发展学院院长、教授、博士生导师。福建省“百千万人才工程”人选。长期从事马克思主义哲学、科技哲学与当代社会理论的教学与研究。兼任中国辩证唯物主义研究会价值哲学专业委员会常务理事;中国历史唯物主义研究会常务理事;中国自然辩证法研究会理事等。在《哲学研究》《马克思主义研究》等国内核心刊物上发表论文80多篇。
薛秀军 华侨大学哲学与社会发展学院党委书记、副院长、教授、博士生导师。中山大学哲学系哲学博士,中国社会科学院哲学研究所哲学博士后,厦门大学公共事务学院公共管理博士后。福建省历史唯物主义研究会副会长,中国辩证唯物主义研究会常务理事,中国人学学会常务理事等。获评“福建省高校新世纪优秀人才”“福建省高校以马克思主义为指导的哲学社会科学青年理论人才”“福建省高校思想政治教育中青年杰出人才”等。主要从事历史唯物主义与中国现代化、管理哲学、文化战略与文化政策研究。

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An Agentive Non-intentionalist Theory of Self-deception

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An Agentive Non-intentionalist Theory of Self-deception


In 2008,Sharon Collins was sentenced to 6 years in prison for conspiracy to murder in an Irish court. She was found guilty of hiring Las Vegas card-dealer Essam Eid,through his “hitmanforhire. net” website,to kill her wealthy partner and his two sons so that she could inherit the businessman’s millions. The plot was foiled when Eid went to Ireland,changed his mind about the hit,and approached the targets offering them the chance to buy out the contract,after which police were called. A lead investigator in the case said that never in his career had he seen so much evidence stacked against a person. This included detailed email conversations between Collins and Eid retrieved from computers in Ireland and the United States,phone records,records of a money transfer,a proxy-marriage certificate obtained by Collins(her partner wouldn’t marry her as he wanted his sons to inherit his business),testimony from Eid’s accomplice,and traces of the deadly poison ricin found in Eid’s possession.

Despite the staggering amount of evidence against her,Collins’ partner PJ Howard-a private man who was clearly besotted with the pretty,petite and extremely two-faced blonde 14 years his junior-refused to believe that she had tried to have him and his sons killed and sided with her story that she was framed as part of an elaborate shakedown. That he genuinely believed she was innocent was evidenced in a number of ways. He wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions urging him not to bring charges against her. He publicly rejected the charges against her in court when giving evidence,defended her character,and kissed her on the lips when he left the witness box. He refused to leave her,against the advice of his sons and solicitor,and visited her in jail after her imprisonment. And he spent a large sum of money hiring private investigators to verify her story for an appeal(Connolly 2008).[]

This case demonstrates,in rather dramatic fashion,that phenomena possessing the following features exist:

1)A subject,S,encounters evidence warranting belief in the truth that not-p.

2)Sstrongly desires that p.

3)Because S desires that p,S ends up believing that p.

... and in light of Howard’s willingness to back Collins’ story with his reputation and money,there is no reason to think that he also secretly or unconsciously believed/suspected the truth. I would not be alone in thinking that this phenomenon-in short,that of falsely believing something against significant contrary evidence because you want it to be true -is self-deception in its most paradigmatic variety.[](A-C excludes ‘twisted self-deception’(Mele 2001,chap.5),a non-paradigmatic form. Our focus will only be on paradigmatic self-deception here.)Of course,some believe that,paradigmatically,self-deceivers do not really believe what they want to be true but know the truth(e.g. Bach 1981). I have defended the former view of self-deception elsewhere(Lynch 2016,518-519;2012)and will take it for granted here.[]

Taking this as our starting-point,the following important question arises,which will be the central concern of this article. We may call it the explanatory question

How,inself-deception,does S end up falsely believing that p because of his/her desire that p

That is,the subject believes that p against good evidence to the contrary,where she would have concluded that not-p were it not for her desiring that p. So the question arises:how does her having that desire lead to her believing that p against the thrust of the evidence,in ordinary real-life cases of that sort?

This question is pressing because on first glance it’s puzzling how such a thing could happen. It’s puzzling,because when explaining why people believe things we typically refer to the evidence/reasons they had,or thought they had,for the belief,or mention facts that suggest what the evidence was(e.g.,‘he knows/believes Gdynia’s in Poland because his wife’s from there’). But the fact that one desires that p obviously does not constitute evidence at all for believing that p,much less evidence that could overturn the weighty evidence for not-p,and S could hardly be mistaking it for such. So how did S end up believing that p from desiring that p

As I see it,approaches to answering this question in the philosophical literature have mostly been polarized between two extremes. Traditionally it was assumed that people deceive themselves in much the same way that they deceive others:by intentionally making themselves have this belief,which they know is false. Philosophers soon found this ‘intentionalist’ account paradoxical and took flight from it,but(as we’ll see)towards an equally objectionable alternative,where self-deception is regarded as an affliction that befalls us rather than as something we do to ourselves,where desires and emotions unduly influence cognition in relatively automatic ways. The first view conceives of the self-deceiver too strongly as perpetrator,while the second conceives of him too strongly as victim. The aim here is to deliver an answer to the explanatory question that gets the subtle balance right between both the perpetrator and victim aspects of self-deception.[] This will be achieved by giving a robust role to intentional action in the explanation of the self-deceptive belief,but where these actions are not done with an intention to make oneself have the belief. Self-deception is something that one does to oneself,but unintentionally.

We will begin in section 2by separating out two important distinctions that have been conflated,the intentionalism/non-intentionalism distinction,and what I call the agentivism/non-agentivism distinction. The meaning and attraction of an agentivist non-intentionalist theory is then outlined,and this perspective is then argued for in sections 3 and 4. In section 3,empirical studies are presented which show that the subject’s own actions,and also omissions,are responsible for causing the self-deceptive belief. It is then argued that these actions must be intentional,and over sections 3 and 4,an account of the relevant intentions is developed alternative to construing them as intentions to deceive oneself,a task that involves outlining the rationalizing relationship between the desire that p and these intentions. Self-deceivers do not act with the intention of making themselves have a belief,but with other intentions,such as,primarily,the intention to find any problems with the unwelcome evidence,a hypothesis that,as is argued in section 4,is psychologically plausible and free of paradox. Then,in section 5,this view is related to other currently popular non-intentionalist explanations. There it is shown that this hypothesis has the power to subsume and unify many of the self-deceptive processes described in the non-intentionalist literature,thus providing a deeper explanation of the phenomenon,and it is also contrasted with the ‘FTL model’,a popular explanation of self-deception among non-intentionalists. The result will be an overhauled non-intentionalism which bucks the trend with such theories of explaining self-deception in terms of affective-cognitive mechanisms,explaining it instead in terms of the person’s rational(in the thin sense)actions,that is,actions done for reasons.

2.A Misconception about Non-Intentionalism

The answer to the explanatory question on offer here is a non-intentionalist one,but before we develop this there is a widespread assumption about non-intentionalism we must be disabused of. Again,the intentionalist answer asserts that self-deceivers end up believing that p by intentionally making themselves have the belief,a belief they know is false/unwarranted.[] So non -intentionalism is simply the negation of this:it is just the denial that self-deceivers intentionally make themselves have a belief that they know is false/unwarranted.

As we’ll see,this leaves the non-intentionalist with a variety of explanatory options to pursue. However,the impression is often given in the literature that non-intentionalism is committed to the view that intentional action,motivated[] by the desire that p,plays no role in the explanation of the self-deceptive belief. That is,it gets assumed that ‘non-intentionlism’ means ‘no intentional action’. For instance,Bermúdez,a critic of non-intentionalism,says that “[a]ccording to anti-intentionalist accounts... self-deceiving belief formation can be explained simply in terms of motivational bias,without bringing in appeals to intentional action”(2000,309). Similarly Talbot,a fellow critic,interprets ‘anti-intentionalism’ as holding that the desire causes the belief by “triggering” or “activating” “non-intentional mechanisms”(1995). And Deweese-Boyd writes that ‘non-intentionalist approaches...[render]the process by which [one]is self-deceived subintentional’(2006/2012).

On this way of distinguishing intentionalism and anti-intentionalism,the theoretical divide between these two persuasions appears very wide. Moreover,since the distinction is supposed to exhaust all possible answers to the explanatory question,it polarizes the debate and hampers our ability to conceive of the full range of explanatory options available to us.

However,the supposition that theself-deceptive belief exists due to the person’s actions(including mental actions),actions which are intentional and motivated by the desire that p,can be consistent with non-intentionalism,so long as the intention these actions are done with is not an intention to deceive oneself(this was all the non-intentionalist was concerned to deny!). Again,this point seems to get missed,even by non-intentionalists themselves. Thus the well-known non-intentionalist,Alfred Mele,calls the view that self-deceptive beliefs are intentionally acquired/retained,the agency view,and the view that they are not intentionally acquired/retained,the anti-agency view(e.g.,1998b,353-354). But the latter view need not imply that the subjects’ actions are not responsible(partly or fully)for the acquisition/retention of the self-deceptive belief,as long as those actions are not done with the intention to acquire/retain that belief. So it is misleading to call this “the anti-agency view”.


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  • 1.Introduction
  • 2.A Misconception about Non-Intentionalism
  • 3.Mediating Processes between the Desire and Belief
  • 4.The Associated Intention
  • 5.The Relation Between this and Mele’s Processes of Self-Deception
  • Acknowledgments